JAMES STEINBERG is deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs – that is, the top deputy to National Security adviser Sandy Berger. HAROLD MEYERSON spoke with him on Friday, February 13.

Harold Meyerson: Does the level of Russian opposition, and other international opposition, to a proposed military action serve as a deterrent?

James Steinberg: Although the Russians have expressed a strong view on Iraqi intervention, other countries are starting to come out of the woodwork to provide support if we need to act. These are not countries that you think of as being historically quick to choose military action: the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Danes, the Argentineans – a number of these have said they'll provide logistical aid. The Germans came out very strongly.

While there's been a lot of focus on France and Russia, there's broad international consensus for international action. Almost unbidden, nations are starting to stand up, a dozen or more in the last week, the Canadians, the Australians. For these nations, the thought of chemical and biological weapons is very serious. And they all feel that there has been a good deal of patience shown by the international community to Saddam Hussein, that Saddam's been given plenty of opportunities.

Meyerson: The Israeli press has reported a sense in Israeli security circles that Iraq probably doesn't now have the capability to send over a missile with a warhead that carries chemical or biological weapons. What do we know about that capability?

Steinberg: What we know is that prior to 1991, the Iraqis had the capability to mate chemical weapons to missiles . . . We can't make the affirmative statement that they can or cannot [today].

Meyerson: But they didn't use that capability even in '91, presumably because they were deterred by the threat of massive, perhaps even nuclear, retaliation from us and from the Israelis. Some critics of administration policy, including some on the right, are saying if we could deter the Soviet Union all those years with the threat of deterrence, why can't we just do that with Iraq?

Steinberg: Obviously, we hope that deterrence will hold. We, like the Bush administraton before us, have made clear that there'll be massive retaliation for a chemical- or biological-weapons attack. Unlike the Soviets, though, Saddam Hussein has actually used these weapons – against his own people, and against the Iranians during the Iraq-Iran War, so it's a much more dangerous situation. He's really the first person to cross the chemical-weapons threshold since World War I.

Now, there is clearly a debate in this country over what course to take with Iraq. But the debate is over what kind of force should be used, and how far you go, and what you do when the action is over.

Meyerson: There's a concern that an attack that Saddam survives will only make him stronger with the Iraqi people.

Steinberg: The more you can call his people's attention to the fact that their suffering is because of him, the less strong he will be with his own people. Despite all the propaganda, the Iraqi people know that life in Iraq was a lot better before the 1991 war and embargo. They will understand that he has brought this on himself and his people.

Compare this to the alternative of not acting. If the international community backs down, he will be much stronger with the Iraqis. He'll be seen as a figure who can get his way with the international community. Other groups and figures will say, “Maybe we have to start dealing with this guy.”

Meyerson: Some critics have said we haven't done very much for or with the Iraqi opposition.

Steinberg: We certainly engage with the Iraqi opposition. We have contact with different groups both inside and outside the country. We continue to look for ways to be more effective and supportive, but it's a difficult situation.

Meyerson: I gather we only found out about Iraq's biological weapons when his sons-in-law defected in 1995. Are you confident that we can actually locate and destroy his chemical- and biological-weapon stocks and capacities?

Steinberg: Our view is that we can have a big impact on the threat of his waging chemical and biological warfare. That's all I can say.

Meyerson: Is it possible we're looking at a military action where technological advances in our weaponry really minimize the risk of American casualties?

Steinberg: It's hubristic to say things about casualties. There's always a risk of casualties in these operations.

Meyerson: Are we entering an era of warfare where one traditional deterrent to waging war – that your side will take a hit, too – will be minimized by the difference in the levels of weaponry on opposite sides?

Steinberg: There's been an interesting debate about whether there's a greater or lesser tolerance for casualties in military campaigns today. But I think it's the wrong way to think about the problem, because the risk you take has to be judged by the risk of acting or not acting. It depends on the nature of the threat you're dealing with. At the end of the day, if you had to face the most existential threat to the nation, you'd be prepared to do more and risk more.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.